In the months leading up to the 2018 season, the biggest story in Major League Baseball had nothing to do with the game on the field. All everyone could talk about, from fans and writers to analysts and front offices, was labor.
Baseball contracts are typically signed for between one and 10 years, after which veteran players can become free agent, able to sign with any team. Usually, when a season ends and winter rolls around, teams start coming to contract terms with these free agents at a slow-but-steady pace. By February, most big names and even average players are signed; the last contracts for the lower-talent class of free agents are usually inked in February, the month spring training begins.
But this year, in early February there were still dozens of free agents still without a team. These weren’t just bench-fillers, backups, and graybeards ready for retirement; many were high-profile, talented veterans, and even some true stars, like JD Martinez, one of MLB’s top power hitters of the last three years and Jake Arrieta, who won the Cy Young Award just two years ago and remains a top-20 pitcher.
In total, the players sitting on the for-sale shelf accounted for more than 200 wins above replacement (WAR) over the past three years, a key measure of a player’s true impact. (These, and all free-agent data, come from Baseball Reference.)
For context, at the same time in 2017, there was 75.1-WAR worth of unsigned players; in 2015, the number was 53.1. The 2016 offseason, at about 150 WAR, was closer to this year, but that largely was driven by a handful of players (Juan Uribe, Marlon Byrd, Shane Victorino) who had unusually strong seasons as they neared the end of their carers. In 2018, there were 15 players with over 5 WAR in the past three seasons, none older than 33.